Perhaps nothing more dramatically drives home the full extent of the extreme drought gripping much of the U.S. West than how precipitously low Lake Mead has dropped about 25 miles east of Las Vegas.
Federal water managers said Tuesday, July 8, that the prolonged drought and increased water demand will deplete Lake Mead to levels not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is more than three trillion gallons below capacity.
The two million residents of Las Vegas and the city’s tens of millions of annual tourists are nearly completely dependent on Lake Mead for drinking water in arid Nevada, which gets blisteringly hot in the summer. About 90 percent of southern Nevada’s water comes from Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir.
By some estimates, Nevada is the driest state in the nation because of the extreme drought. Nearly 40 million people in the West depend on the Colorado River, which irrigates about 5.5 million acres in the region. For the past 15 years, the drought has reduced the Colorado River system’s storage by about nine trillion gallons or the equivalent of the Hudson River running dry for two years.
Lake Mead—which stretches 112 miles behind Boulder or Hoover Dam—was last full in 1998 at 1,296 feet above sea level, but now it is just under 40 percent of its capacity and its level continues to steadily decline, leaving a distinct white mineral “bathtub ring” on hard rock surfaces on the reservoir’s edges. It has dropped about 215 feet in the past 16 years to 1,082 feet.
Lake Mead is managed in conjunction with Lake Powell farther up the Colorado River near the Utah/Arizona line, which stands at 52 percent capacity. Seven southwestern U.S. states, Native American tribes and Mexico are allocated water from the Colorado River’s diminishing flow. Like Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles also are dependent on its water volumes.
If Lake Mead drops below 1,075 feet, water deliveries to Nevada and Arizona would be directly cut, but not to California. Last year, after two consecutive driest years in a century, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation gave Nevada and Arizona a 50/50 chance of getting water supplies directly cut in 2016. Ripple effects would impact California, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming.
In February, two federal lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas to block plans by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (SNWA) to pump millions of gallons of water each year from the rural Nevada counties of Lincoln and White Pine to Las Vegas. The 263-mile pipeline project would cost an estimated $6.5 billion and take 10 years to complete.
The Center for Biological Diversity of Tucson, the Great Basin Water Network, the Sierra Club, Indian tribes and White Pine County sued the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Interior, which authorized the pipeline to be installed on public lands in Nevada.
The lawsuits contend the federal approval violates the National Environmental Policy Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The plaintiffs say the project would dry up or adversely impact 33 miles of trout streams, 5,000 acres of meadows, more than 200 springs, 136,000 acres of sagebrush habitat for elk, mule deer, sage grouse and pronghorn. They argue water tables could plunge by 200 feet.
In 2006, SNWA, the BLM, the National Park Service, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs signed an agreement that withdrew federal opposition to SNWA applications in Spring Valley, NV.
Opponents say it was done in secret, excluding the public and White Pine County, and called it a “water grab.”
Last June, an annual Snake Valley Festival was held to protest SNWA’s plan to pump water from rural Nevada communities like Baker, NV, via the pipeline to Las Vegas. In December, Senior District Court Judge Robert Estes dealt the pipeline a setback, sending its plans back to the drawing board, which encouraged rural Nevadans.
On June 12, lawyers representing Great Basin ranchers, environmentalists, tribes and two Utah counties urged a judge in Ely, NV, to overturn a 2011 ruling by State Engineer Jason King granting water for the controversial project. SNWA wants to pump up to 84,000 acre-feet of groundwater a year from rural valleys in White Pine and Lincoln counties. One acre-foot equals about 325,851 gallons of water.
SNWA wants to deliver the water to the Las Vegas Valley through a network of pumps and pipelines costing billions of dollars and stretching more than 300 miles.
Las Vegas Attorney Paul Hejmanowski, who represents the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its large cattle ranch in Spring Valley, said SNWA has only declared good intentions without giving proof it can do anything to avert disaster.
Snake Valley rancher Dean Baker is an outspoken critic of the project. He said more farmers and ranchers would have attended the standing-room-only meeting that lasted all day, but they were in the middle of baling hay.
Eagle Valley rancher Kena Gloeckner said she fears the pipeline in Lincoln County’s Dry Lake Valley will destroy winter cattle range and disrupt her family’s five-generation family business.
Senior District Judge Robert Estes is expected to rule on the appeal by pipeline opponents later this year.
Mark Leberfinger, an AccuWeather.com staff writer, noted June 28 that the protracted California drought continues to worsen with 33 percent of the state now under exceptional drought conditions. For the last two months, that percentage stood at 25 percent.
At the end of May, California’s snowpack water equivalent in the Sierras was virtually at zero. Drought conditions also expanded in Arizona and Nevada.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said water woes in the Southwest will worsen because warmer temperatures are decreasing spring snowpack and Colorado River flows, stressing agriculture, water supplies and recreation in the region. The New York Times reported June 17 that Arizona could run out of water in six years.
“Future warming is projected to produce more severe droughts in the region, with further reductions in water supplies,” the EPA stated on its website. “Future water scarcity will be compounded by the region’s rapid population growth, which is the highest in the nation.” — Mark Mendiola, WLJ Correspondent